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Australia's 'greatest author' went berserk, saying Malcolm Turnbull wants to destroy the book industry

Author Richard Flanagan

Award-winning writer Richard Flanagan has accused the federal government of attempting to destroy the publishing industry and the livelihoods of writers.

Delivering the keynote address at the Australian Book Industry Awards last night, the Tasmanian, hailed as “the finest Australian novelist of his generation” by The Economist and whose novel about the Thai-Burma death railway, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the world’s most prestigious book prize, the Man Booker, in 2014, took aim at a Productivity Commission proposal to reduce copyright on published words to just 15 years.

“It may seem at the moment that the only thing that will save the Australian book industry is moving every publisher and writer into Christopher Pyne’s electorate, and making them all wear hi-vis jackets and safety helmets,” Flanagan began his address.

“The Abbott and now Turnbull governments’ record drips with a contempt for writers and writing that leaves me in despair. They want to thieve our past work, and, by ending parallel importation restrictions and territorial copyright, destroy any future for Australian writers.”

Flanagan’s tirade against the the Coalition was unrelenting in its savagery. He follows other prominent authors, including Tim Winton and Tom Keneally, the Australian Society of Authors and the Copyright Agency speaking out against proposed changes to the Copyright right

Similar changes in Canada led to the near-collapse of the local copyright fee collecting agency and an end a local educational publishing industry after universities and school then refused to pay for copyright educational texts.

“This is a government that has no respect for us and no respect for what we do. This is a government that despises books and views with hostility the civilisation they represent. Perhaps it hopes in a growing silence that it might prosper. Certainly, it cares only about one thing: power,” Flanagan said.

He outlined that the Turnbull government is currently considering a proposal for copyright for authors to end between 15 to 25 years after a work is first published.

“The only thing these people read are The Panama Papers to see if their own name has cropped up,” Flanagan said.

A decade ago, copyright lasted until 50 years after the author’s death, but law was changed in 2006 as part of US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, it changed to “plus 70” law in line with the USA and European Union law, except for authors who died before 1955.

If the change was adopted, it would see authors losing ownership of their work in the lifetime, Flanagan said:

So Mem Fox has no rights in Possum Magic. Stephanie Alexander has no rights in A Cook’s Companion. Elizabeth Harrower has no rights in The Watch Tower. John Coetzee has no rights in his Booker winning Life and Times of Michael K. Nor Peter Carey to The Kelly Gang, nor Tim Winton to Cloudstreet. Anyone can make money from these books except the one who wrote it.

Flanagan took aim at the Productivity Commission for its report into the publishing industry, saying it “doesn’t dare call books books. Instead they are called – in a flourish not unworthy of Don de Lillo – cultural externalities”.

He did not hold back on the Productivity Commission’s report:

In their perverted world view, the book industry’s very success is a key argument in their need to destroy the book industry, and this determination to destroy an industry is revealed in their reports as the real aim of these proposals.

Just one highly revealing quote from the Productivity Commission:

“The expansion of the books production industries over recent decades has attracted and held productive resources, notably skilled labour and capital, that have thereby been unavailable for use in other industries. The upshot will have been reduced growth in employment and output in other parts of the economy.”

Replace the clumsy phrase “book production industries” with the word “kulak”, and you would have ideological cant worthy of Stalin.

What they are saying is that without the book industry – which is nothing more than a parasite – the economy would be doing far better. We could all be helping the economy doing real work like, well, being unpaid interns for merchant bankers.

The report’s proposals, which even before seeing them the Turnbull government agreed to endorse, effectively extinguish the Australian book industry as we know it and deliver our market to American and British publishers.

And that’s what this government thinks of everyone in this room. Be under no illusion: they want to destroy this industry. And with it, Australian literature. They want you out of a job, they want us no longer writing. Cultural externalities are, after all, external to who and what we are.

“Who benefits from ignorance and silence other than the most powerful and the richest?” Flanagan said.

“There is, after all, both a bitter irony and a profound connection in a government that would condemn the wretched of the earth as illiterate, while hard at work to rob its own people of their culture of words.”

Flanagan says the Abbott and Turnbull governments “have been the worst in our history in their treatment of artists and writers”.

With their gutting of the Australia Council, with their theft of money for a Book Council that never happened and the money for it vanished into general revenue, they have shown that they do not care, and now, far worse, that they wish to destroy the possibility of a future Australian literature by destroying territorial copyright.

Where is prime minister Turnbull’s much vaunted innovative economy in this decision? Where exactly, prime minister, are the jobs and innovation in destroying jobs and innovation? We employ people, some 25,000 by last count. We make billions, we pay tax, we make things and we sell them here and we sell them around the world. And all at no cost to the taxpayer. And now prime minister Turnbull would destroy it all.

He argued that publishing and writing was not a subsidised industry.

“The fossil fuel industry gets $18bn of subsidies. A single South Australian submarine worker gets $17.9m. And writers? The total direct subsidy for all Australian writers is just $2.4m. That’s it,” he said.

The Guardian published Flanagan’s full speech here.

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